In Chartmetric’s Black Lives Matter piece for December 2020, they dug into how the nearly century-old tradition of Black gospel continues to thrive today in the modern streaming economy via music data analysis.
Guest post by Jason Joven from Charmetric
Editor’s Note: In our last piece for 2020, Chartmetric continues to honor Black artists in the context of what we normally do: nerd out on music, data, and culture.
Our November installment focused on beloved figures in Rap: Los Angeles’ Nipsey Hussle, Chicago’s Juice WRLD, and Brooklyn’s Pop Smoke. Though their deaths came too soon, data shows that their fans support their legacy long after.
In this December 2020 piece, we look at how Black Gospel music’s nearly century-old tradition continues today, and honor its influence on artists around the world.
I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free…It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.
— Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” (source)
Even as the 2020 holiday season wraps up, it’s easy to forget the influence of religion in our everyday lives. It’s even easier to forget what roles it plays in the music we listen to everyday.
So if you are not familiar with Christianity, it’s very possible your exposure to Black American Gospel music is limited to pop culture, and lately, that’s been Kanye West & Netflix.
Most West fans are well familiar with the religious themes throughout his career, and in 2019 and 2020, his work with the Sunday Service Choir has resulted in several recorded releases, celebrity attendees, and rousing live performances, including a Coachella appearance complete with $225 sweatshirt merchandise.
Or, if Netflix and singing competitions are your thing, then the streaming video platform served up Voices of Fire in November 2020, headed up by another superstar American producer, Pharrell Williams. In it, Williams, flanked by his uncle Bishop Ezekiel Williams, scour his Virginian hometown to put together a Gospel choir in six episodes.
These are Gospel’s latest pop occurrences, and no matter what you may feel about them, they should at least be honored for the spotlight they attempt to shine on a genre of music so influential in today’s music, and yet so inaccessible to those of us who have not experienced the raw power of Black choir in action.
Negro Spirituals, European Christian Hymns & African improvisation
Only PhD music historians could adequately describe the detailed origins of modern Black Gospel music, but it derives from several unlikely sources. The simplistic version is that its roots are based in the Negro Spirituals sung by African Americans throughout the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 1700s and 1800s, while tying in European Christian hymns of the 1500s and 1600s and the improvisational Gospel blues style in the 1920s. Through the decades since, the use of call and response, the incorporation of secular popular music stylings and instrumentation, elaborate harmonies and melisma-laden solos, have all contributed to the genre’s purpose of making the praise of God more accessible to the congregation.
The use of blues is particularly ironic, as it was known as the “devil’s music” in many religious circles of the time. But Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, now considered the “King of Gospel”, was an accomplished blues musician by the time he pioneered the roots of modern Black Gospel as we know it today. The “Queen of Gospel”, as it were, is Mahalia Jackson, who Dorsey made acquaintance with in Chicago, the birthplace of the genre.
Gospel Lives On Today
Any form or derivative of Gospel music, whether it be Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), Southern Gospel, Christian Country, or Black Gospel, naturally has a base audience in its Churches and religious listeners, wherever they may be. So it may not be fair to say that Black Gospel is set to dominate the charts, despite its latest appearances in pop culture. Arguably, it would be out of place, as that is what pop is meant to do: assimilate sub-genres, and serve them in a “diet” version for mainstream audience consumption. It’d be a shame for such a powerful genre of music to be watered down.
But at the genre-level, Gospel continued to grow in 2020. Taking its Top 100 artists by growth throughout 2020, Gospel grew nearly 40% in YouTube Channel Views, from 2.2B to 3.1B views overall. For perspective, that edges out Country (34%) and CCM (38%), though its growth is nearly doubled by Rap (76%) and more than quadrupled by the undefeatable genre of Pop (177%).
Gospel’s Top 10 artists by Spotify Monthly Listeners (which signifies a growing audience, rather than pure stream count) in 2020 reveal a diverse set of talent, from the omnipresent Kirk Franklin (49% growth to 1.8M listeners), to the Grammy-winning singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard (36% growth to 895K listeners) and the highest-selling female Gospel group in history, the Clark Sisters (154% growth to 148K listeners).
Of particular interest at the end of 2020 is breakout Gospel star Koryn Hawthorne. Currently securing the #1 spot on the Gospel Billboard charts at the end of 2020, the Louisiana-born singer debuted in 2015 on the eighth season of American television singing competition The Voice, launching a career which includes two Grammy nominations.
Hawthorne’s growth on social media is to be noted as well, particularly on TikTok. She went from 90K (May 2020) to 169K followers in the second half of 2020, which is not easy for artists to do on the track-oriented platform. Her profile features all the things a fun TikTok account does: dances with friends, looking glamorous, and funny challenges like the #bopitchallenge. Her TikTok Likes in Dec 2020 (439K) put her profile in the ballpark of multi-hyphenate artist Anderson .Paak (434K) and country star Tim McGraw
Whether you regularly listen to Black Gospel music or not, make no mistake: when Ed Sheeran or Ariana Grande tags a bluesy run of notes at the end of a verse, or Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton enlist dozens of singers for a powerful chorus, they are incanting the legacy of Black Gospel tradition. For every pop flourish, there have been countless Church performances that were enjoyed only by the immediate congregation present. Though some of us may have never stepped inside a Black Church, we are treated to its influence every time we press play. We invite you to explore those carrying the torch of this seminal art form in American culture.
Once COVID is over, don’t forget that amazing talent may just be down the street in your local Church. It may be Black Gospel’s finest incarnation in your life. If you are ever so lucky, bask in its glory.